Friday, March 01, 2013

The yellow bird flaps again....

As forecast, the Liberal Democrats retained Eastleigh last night. Rather more surprisingly, UKIP ran a close second and beat the Tories into third place.

So, is this a sign of a LibDem renaissance or just a wounded animal flapping around the place?

Well, despite my usual caveats about drawing any broad conclusions from the peculiarities of a by-election, I shall now proceed to do just that. The surprise isn't that the LibDems held on - it would have been more of a shock if they hadn't, given the extremely favourable electoral geography.

Firstly, they controlled the time of the byelection - moving the writ rapidly after Huhne's resignation and thus gaining an advantage. They also chose wisely - a candidate with a local profile as a councillor. The seat itself contains 40 of the 44 councillors on Eastleigh Borough Council - all of those are Liberal Democrat and they have increased their representation during the course of this parliament, bringing with it an effective and established local campaigning machine that could be refreshed by the influx of volunteers from across the country. Finally, it was a LibDem/Tory marginal, so there was still room to squeeze the Labour voters and see if they could hold their noses long enough to put a LibDem into parliament rather than see another right-wing Tory join the ranks. Finally, they have been established long enough to build up their loyal postal voters, with (I believe) over 8000 cast in this election. This proved to be especially fortuitous, as many of those would have been completed and returned prior to the Rennard revelations over the past week and the constantly shifting sands that have passed for Nick Clegg's versions of the truths.

The Tory selection of their 2010 candidate also proved to be a surprising help to the Liberal Democrats. Despite her well-known anti-European credentials and opposition to gay marriage, this did not persuade the sizeable UKIP vote existing within the seat to back her, but may have encouraged some of the left of centre to back the candidate most likely to beat her. She also proved to be extraordinarily gaffe-prone and apparently incapable of opening her mouth without inserting at least one foot - to the point where she seems to have become invisible in the last week or so of the campaign, avoiding two high-profile husting events. Far from being the vote winner that I thought she might be, she managed to drop the ball quite effectively.

Labour actually slightly increased their vote share, but not by any statistically significant amount. Given that they went from a standing start with little local structure, by all accounts, then that's a creditable result in the scheme of things. It would have been a brave pundit to have forecast a Labour win during this campaign.

UKIP have been the story of the campaign with their best ever parliamentary election result and coming within 1800 votes of winning their first seat. Their candidate looked competent and sane - rare qualities amongst some of the UKIPpers and seemed every inch the perfect Tory candidate.

I tweeted last night that the by election was probably more important for internal party politics than anything else. Clegg looks to have protected himself a little, but I'll still be surprised if he fights the 2015 election as leader. Cameron now feels the slavering hounds of the Eurosceptics at his heels again. They've tasted a little meat with the promise of renegotiation and a referendum, plus the minor triumph of the EU budget - but if Cameron thought that would calm them, he's wrong. They want more and he's not got a lot to give away. Expect the Tory party to look again at Dave and wonder if he's really the man to deliver them their first national majority in almost a quarter of a century. An increasing number will decide that he isn't (odd, as he has consistently proved more personally popular than his party in opinion polls). Could that be enough for a few of them to write those letters to the 1922 Committee Chair to trigger a leadership election? Perhaps not today, but maybe later in the year.

So we'll let the LibDems parade their 'Winning Here' signs round one more time, but remember this. In a General Election, it will not be possible to pour the entire party's resource into one parliamentary seat. Those fifteen to twenty LibDem MPs with narrow majorities, whether facing Tory or Labour opponents should be rather nervous. It seems that Labour voters will still turn out to back them against more terrifying options, but they will not always be advantaged with flocks of local councillors, a Tory candidate whose confidence drained away by the second or a handy right wing party to siphon off the Conservative vote. It isn't as bleak for the LibDems as it once was, but this is hardly a new dawn breaking - perhaps just a delayed sunset.

In truth, this was a damn close run thing.

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